“Dr Nesse’s hypothesis is that, as pain stops you doing damaging physical things, so low mood stops you doing damaging mental ones—in particular, pursuing unreachable goals. Pursuing such goals is a waste of energy and resources. Therefore, he argues, there is likely to be an evolved mechanism that identifies certain goals as unattainable and inhibits their pursuit—and he believes that low mood is at least part of that mechanism.”

Mild and bitter: The evolutionary origin of depression

Nesse’s hypothesis provides an interesting explanation of the evolutionary function of mental depression. However, I fear that accepting his hypothesis (or, more commonly, just the feeling) uncritically may lead to premature goal abandonment when low mood strikes, thereby short-circuiting one’s true potential. The danger here is that one takes an obstacle to a desired goal as insurmountable, so one gives up too easily when it may in fact be possible to achieve one’s goal with additional effort and/or alternate means. However, if one pauses to recognize a low mood as a signal that it is simply time to try something different (which may mean adopting a different strategy rather than a different goal), then such psychological fatalism and premature goal abandonment may be avoided and some positive emotional outcome created in reframing one’s low mood merely as a signal to change one’s approach.

Of course, none of this is to conclude that there are not times when abandoning a goal is not the correct course of action. However, if one judges the goal as important, and it is actually attainable (the study seems to imply that the goals in question were objectively unattainablewhich is a different matter than ambitious goals, which the Economist article also referenced), then changing tactics a few times before giving up is likely the response that will lead to success, though perhaps no greater happiness.

On that point, goal abandonment is probably the surer route to happiness, that is, if one can give up the emotional attachment to the goal along with pursuit of the goal. Here, I think Buddhist wisdom unites persistence and happiness. As I understand the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism, suffering (depression is certainly an example) comes from attachment. In this case, from craving the goal. Nirvana is found in cessation of that attachment (the Third Noble Truth of Buddhism). However, cessation of attachment does not necessarily imply cessation of deliberate action intended to achieve the goal. It simply means giving up the emotional craving for the goal. That is, letting go of the expectation of attaining it, and simply doing the work. One may still persistently pursue ambitious goals and be happy if one is not emotionally bound to achieving those goals, a stance which calls to mind the current personal productivity advice to focus on systems process rather than goals. Of course, letting go of goals while simultaneously pursuing them is much easier said than done. Enter Noble Truth #4, the Eightfold Path, and the myriad of tricks one can play on oneself to achieve nirvana …

But what choice do we have but to follow that path? On the one hand, we are driven by needs and wants manifested as desires out of which we intellectualize particular goals. There seems to be an obvious evolutionary explanation for this proclivity: It’s how natural selection wired us to survive. Without at least basic desires to fulfill physiological needs, we would not have motivation to get our next meal, build appropriate shelter, reproduce the species, and we would quickly become extinct. Of course, human desires now go far beyond these basic survival needs. Our limitless desires have been the impetus to ratchet up civilization to its present state. 

At the same time, one must also recognize from past experience that achieving desires and goals won’t really make one happy. Professors Rayo & Becker at The Unversity of Chicago have developed an intriguing mathematical model of this operation of first and second Noble Truths in their article “Evolutionary Efficiency and Happiness“. They model happiness as a function constantly updating relative to current opportunities and peer comparisons but reverting inevitably to its long-term mean. So wherever you are, whatever you have accomplished, your level of happiness will be influenced by your current opportunities (not by what you just achieved) and by your current peer comparisons. (Which is why the positive psychology literature recommends we compare ourselves to our previous selves or focus on those less fortunate rather than those “ahead” of us.)

Rayo & Becker’s model is consistent with the empirical research finding that individuals’ self-reported happiness rebounds even after major trauma (like becoming quadriplegic), which I first learned about through Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s highly accessible book Stumbling on Happiness. It is also reinforced by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s idea of an individual happiness ‘set-point’ in the notional “happiness formula’ that he describes in his equally accessible book The Happiness Hypothesis. Further, this evolutionary perspective contributes to explaining Gilbert’s compelling findings that we humans are quite bad at predicting what will actually make us happy: First, our environment has changed radically since our mental “happiness function” evolved, creating a mismatch in the range of actions currently available to us and their relative hedonic reward, a pay-off which set by natural selection under enormously different conditions than obtain in modern society. Second, and more importantly, since the perceived happiness is constantly updated relative to current opportunities and peer comparisons, the difference between one’s expected and actual level of happiness is an innate feature of the evolved happiness function which keeps us constantly pursuing perceived hedonic incentives.

That is, constantly craving the next thing; Constantly on the treadmill. The Buddha had this figured out millenia ago. But we are still left with his classic dilemma, just updated in the language of evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics: One the one horn, we find ourselves programmed by natural selection to constantly want more, to constantly set new goals by the illusion that sating those desires and achieving those goals will make us happy; On the other horn, we find ourselves never able to finding lasting happiness in the fulfillment of those goals and desires by the very structure of that programming.

Tricky business indeed. Pointers to the middle path appreciated.